The car I've brought to Carolina Motorsports Park deserves the skepticism it's getting. Gathered here are members of the Porsche Club of America. Like many of the Porsche-loyal (see Seinfeld, J.), they see the rear-engine 911 and, more importantly, its flat six to be the essential expression of its manufacturer's illustrious history. It's the setup that has powered every 911, the legendary 959, and some of the greatest race cars in the history of motor sport. Porsche hasn't built a four-cylinder since the 1990s-era 968.
Like the preceding six-cylinder Boxster and Cayman, the 718 is the entry-level flyweight to the big-boy 911. Previously, both had the iconic flat six. Sure, Porsche would dial down the horsepower on the Boxster and Cayman to keep them from overshadowing the 911. But all sang the same beautiful song. Not anymore. The new 718 has lost two cylinders to make a flat four, and, in the S model I've brought, gained a sophisticated turbocharger. In this sense, the 718 Boxster is emblematic of the challenges facing every car company: Keep upping the power, ideally while reducing emissions and fuel consumption. Smaller engines and turbos?that's how you do it. So I asked the Porsche Club congregants: The flat six is gone, now exclusive to the $90,000 911. Shall we weep?
The PCA crowd is pretty hardcore. Local chapter director Marty Barrett is representative, towing his Porsche behind his Porsche (911 GT3 and Cayenne, respectively). Another member, Marvin Jennings, owns three 911s and brought his 1969 racer. The grass parking area next to the track is crowded with more tasty 911s, Caymans, and Boxsters, with a Macan or two thrown in. These are the people Porsche needs to convert to the four-cylinder philosophy.
Not being a Porsche traditionalist myself, I warmed to the flat four the first time I passed a dawdler on the rural two-lanes leading to the track. Boxsters have always had great grip and midengine balance, but you felt like you could do your taxes on the straightaways. The 718 S, however, kicks out 350 horsepower and 309 lb-ft of torque, and its distinctly 911-like acceleration comes from that special turbocharger. Most turbos are like a one-speed transmission?quick response or big, powerful boost, but not both. But the 718's can change the angle of the turbo's vanes, adjusting boost so smoothly that it mimics a naturally aspirated engine's torque curve. This is a revelation: a Boxster with torque.
I want to know what Jennings thinks, so I climb into the passenger seat and we head out onto the track. We're chasing a Cayman GT4, the 385-hp zenith of the six-cylinder era. "If you didn't tell me this was a four, I would've thought it was a six," Jennings says. "It pulls all the way to the redline with no turbo lag." While I'm sure a GT4 sets quicker lap times, our 718 stays on its tail without seeming to exert itself?the car ahead of us has 35 more horses when it's near the redline, but the 718 is stronger low down in the rev range, where you're actually driving most of the time.
Jennings professes respect for the 718, but allows that his definition of a Porsche begins and ends with the 911. So we head into the pits to recruit a midengine acolyte. I find one in Bill Ainsley, who drives a Boxster RS 60 on the street and a Cayman on the track. We're barely past turn one when he dips into the throttle and declares, "Wow?.?.?.?that's a lot of torque!" These are words that have never before been spoken from behind the wheel of a Boxster. "Not the same sound, though," he says, his voice tinged with disappointment. With the top down, you hear its belligerent woofle. It's the whumpa-whumpa-whumpa drumbeat of a flat four, a sound like the Red Baron swooping down to strafe a trench. But at speed, the noise disappears in the slipstream.
Such is the price of progress. A naturally aspirated flat six sings with a hard-edged rasp, an unfiltered crackle that's increasingly rare as even the mighty 911 moves to an all-turbocharged lineup. These cars are faster and still get decent mileage. You can't really argue with that. But driving one is like your favorite band's new album. It takes a few listens before you dig the new material.
Eventually, the four-cylinder Boxster will seem like it's been around forever. Which, in a way, it has. The original 718 from the late 1950s had a flat four. So did James Dean's 550 Spyder. Embrace these new 718s, people. Because at some point, whether in ten years or 20 or 30, the technological noose will draw tight, and the homogeneity of electrics will render moot all the age-old barroom debates on cylinder count and turbos. But for now, Porsche has a new engine, one that renews the relevance of its most attainable sports car. You've got to like the sound of that.
- Base price $69,450 (Boxster S)
- Zero to 60 4.3 seconds
- Engine Horizontally opposed four-cylinder
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